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The importance of metrics in green buildings

Metrics have become a major part of defining and benchmarking green building performance, but fou...

IMAGE: Triovest Realty Advisors innovation and sustainability vice-president Philippe Bernier. (Courtesy Triovest)

Triovest Realty Advisors innovation and sustainability vice-president Philippe Bernier. (Courtesy Triovest)

Metrics have become a major part of defining and benchmarking green building performance, but four senior executives in the sustainability sector agreed owners and operators face many challenges in implementing consistent measurable metrics.

“We’re setting top-down targets for what we in the property industry on a global basis and national basis and provincial basis need to accomplish, and our codes and standards developers are actually doing something completely different,” said Chris Pyke of Arc Skoru.

The Washington, D.C.-based technology company created the Arc building performance platform and provides tools to manage, measure, analyze, score and communicate real-world performance data.

“At different scales, we’re coming up with different metrics and they don’t even conceptually need to align,” said Pyke.

The discussion took place during a keynote virtual panel session on Sept. 29 as part of the Canada Green Building Council’s Building Lasting Change 2020 Online conference.

Some of the challenges reflect where a building is in its life cycle.

Pyke said differences between embodied and operational carbon must be recognized and metrics must reflect that. A building is totally composed of embodied carbon on its first day, but it’s a 50/50 split on average with operational carbon after that, and that ratio is constantly changing.

Target setting for green buildings

There’s often disagreement on the scope of what’s being measured. While some targets are created from the bottom up (i.e. an individual asset), others are set from the top down (universal regulations or portfolio-wide targets, for example). Pyke said this can lead to different conclusions.

“Buildings are inseparable from the electricity grid they’re connected to,” so targets may differ depending on the location and type of grid they’re on, said Pyke.

While Oxford Properties Group has put site-specific targets in place across its portfolio and does building-by-building examinations, it also uses a combination of top-down and bottom-up targets.

“You’re not going to have a perfect solution for the bottom-up,” said Oxford sustainability director Darryl Neate. However, he added: “It’s hard for people to connect to a target if it’s strictly top-down.”

Triovest Realty Advisors innovation and sustainability vice-president Philippe Bernier said attempts were made a decade ago to set portfolio-wide, top-down targets, but it resulted in frustration for property teams. Universal targets don’t always align with the realities faced at individual properties.

“The best approach is to have some directional guidance about where we need to hit, and leave it to the property teams to set targets that make sense,” said Bernier. “More than anything, it’s about giving people feedback on performance. Targets are one thing, but performance is everything.”

The importance of ESG reporting

Manulife Investment Management associate VP and managing director of sustainability Regan Smith said it’s an exciting time to be involved with environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). The pace of progress in the last two years has been exponential, companies’ senior leadership teams are making new ESG commitments, and investors are tracking those plans and the progress being achieved.

“They’re seeing that ESG risk is investment risk. Investors aren’t alone in driving disclosure expectations. It’s also become increasingly important with regulatory requirements” from various levels of government.

“Companies that are bold with their ESG strategies and activities are really being rewarded, yet the complexity surrounding sustainability disclosure has made it difficult to develop a comprehensive solution that works for all corporate reporting that’s really urgently needed,” said Smith. “We see so many different frameworks available and different ways that you can disclose and report on your performance.”

Triovest’s strategy for performance measurement and transparency relates to its sustainability strategy. GRESB is its principal benchmarking tool to measure what it’s doing well and where there are opportunities for improvement.

“We benchmark, we prioritize, we measure and we publish,” said Bernier. “We systematically address gaps and strive to get better every year.”

A need for increased automation and consistency

Bernier would like to see more automation in data collection so humans can shift to more value-added activities. This would include providing feedback and the right data to the right people at the right time so decisions can be made and actions can be taken.

Bernier would like utility companies to agree on and provide access to consistent data, presented in a digitized format. This will make it easier for owners and operators to transparently report at the building level, as well as for energy and water benchmarking, labelling, disclosure and more.

Using performance benchmarks across a large group of assets is difficult to put in context. Neate said Oxford has “doubled down on one global platform” to manage and report energy use and emissions information across all asset classes and regions, covering hundreds of buildings.

“Giving people their best past performance is extremely powerful. It builds knowledge and awareness of their performance and builds a lot of understanding and aptitude when setting site-level targets as well.”

Adding assets and changes in tenants, space types and people in property management and operations roles present additional challenges to portfolio owners.

Impact of COVID-19 on green building metrics

Office buildings across Canada were shut down in March due to COVID-19 and, while they’ve been gradually reopening in recent months, the way they’re being used has changed.

“Higher performance buildings that are more highly rated on rating systems as a proxy for quality were easier to adapt to the changing use of occupancy,” said Bernier. “It was easier to measure and understand what’s going on.”

Smith said the pandemic has created more discussions about indoor air quality, and Manulife has implemented more detailed tracking and monitoring.

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